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BIG EAST NOTES: Conference season hits halfway point

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As teams approach the midpoint of the BIG EAST season, each team is looking to differentiate themselves from the six teams within 2.5 games of each other. Here is where each team stands:

VILLANOVA WILDCATS (19-1, 6-1 BIG EAST)

The No. 1 Villanova Wildcats will enter an 11-game, five-week stretch without one of its key contributors, forward Phil Booth, who fractured his hand against Providence last Tuesday.

“Phil Booth is a huge loss,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “It’s not just his shooting and his defense, but he’s really the most well-respected, loved guy on our team. He’s a big part of the spirit of this team.”

Villanova’s first test without Booth will be Sunday against Marquette at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the same place where Marquette upset No. 1 Villanova last year. Wright said he expects this game to be just as competitive as last year’s 74-72 upset.

“We just looked at (last year’s loss) as a typical hard-fought road game in our conference, so it wasn’t really that upsetting to us,” Wright said. “We have great respect for (Marquette), and it’s the same way now. We don’t look at them as underdogs or us as no. 1. We look at it as a road game in our conference. We know they can get really hot at the Bradley Center, and we know it’s a tough game.”

XAVIER MUSKETEERS (19-3, 7-2 BIG EAST)

It seemed that just about everything was falling for Xavier Wednesday night in its 89-70 victory over Marquette.

That included the Musketeers’ screen defense, an important part of their early success. When Marquette would attempt a pick, Xavier defenders would hedge aggressively, eliminating 3-point opportunities for the Golden Eagles’ shooters.

“You have to be able to defend those guys with high ball screen coverage because you are going to see so much of it,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack said. “At times, our pressure up top produced drives, and … we would rather have those guys, Howard and Rowsey, take tough twos rather than take tough threes because they make both at a really high level.”

Xavier will have a relatively easy stretch of the schedule next, playing St. John’s and Georgetown next week. The Red Storm and Hoyas are a combined 3-15 in BIG EAST play.

 

CREIGHTON BLUEJAYS (16-5, 6-3 BIG EAST) 

For the second straight year, a key Creighton player has fallen victim to a torn ACL Last year, it was point guard Maurice Watson Jr. This year, center Martin Krampelj sustained a season-ending injury in the Bluejays’ 80-63 victory over Seton Hall. He averaged 11.9 points per game, up from 2.9 last year.

Most of Krampelj’s minutes have gone to senior Toby Hegner. Creighton head coach Greg McDermott praised Hegner’s defensive improvement.

“(Toby) recognized at the end of last year … that he needed to get stronger and we were going to need him defensively to guard more centers, as opposed to power forwards.” McDermott said.

 

PROVIDENCE FRIARS (14-7, 5-3 BIG EAST)

Since the start of conference play, Providence had more than three days’ rest before an opponent just three times. Now the Friars have a week to regroup after an 89-69 loss to Villanova and prepare for Seton Hall next week Thursday.

“It’s a good time for us to try to continue to heal; there are some guys who have been sick or had some nagging injuries,” Ed Cooley said. “We’ll worry about ourselves for a couple days, then key in on a talented Seton Hall team.”

Prior to the Villanova loss, Providence won four straight games. It’s the sixth straight year the Friars have had a three-game winning streak in conference play.

 

SETON HALL PIRATES (15-5, 4-3 BIG EAST)

The Pirates fell out of the top 25 after a home loss to Xavier last Sunday. The Hall did not have a midweek game and have been using the time off to gear up for a road trip to DePaul.

Moving forward, Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said he believes his freshmen will continue to develop and earn playing time, especially guard Myles Cale.

“Each team gives you different opportunities to play each one of them maybe a little bit more minutes depending upon personnel,” Willard said. “That’s kind of the way we’ve been going about it so far.”

 

BUTLER BULLDOGS (14-7 4-4 BIG EAST)

Butler will square off against a stingy St. John’s team Saturday afternoon at Hinkle and will try to move up from its sixth place perch. One player that could be the difference this weekend is Kamar Baldwin, who has scored at least 10 points in every BIG EAST game. Butler head coach LaVall Jordan said Baldwin has a natural aptitude for driving to the basket.

“That’s his gift,” Jordan said. “He can get in the lane, and he has a variety of finishes around the basket … now that we’ve gotten to conference play, he has found a really good balance of scoring and finding other guys.”

 

MARQUETTE GOLDEN EAGLES (13-7, 4-4 BIG EAST) 

The Golden Eagles’ 89-70 loss to Xavier in the Cintas Center was head coach Steve Wojciechowski’s worst nightmare. Not only did his team get thoroughly dominated, but his starting small forward, sophomore Sam Hauser, suffered a hip injury in the first half and had to be helped off. His status is day-to-day.

“Sam is our rock,” Wojo said. “He’s as important of a player as we have on our team. We need to see how he’s feeling.”

Having Hauser back will be essential for Marquette to compete against No. 1 Villanova at home Sunday. He scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the Golden Eagles’ 100-90 loss to the Wildcats in Philadelphia earlier this year.

 

GEORGETOWN HOYAS (13-7, 3-6 BIG EAST)

Georgetown seems to struggle breaking many of its offensive habits. The Hoyas have one of the worst turnover rates in the league; 21.9 percent of all their possessions end with a giveaway. Only one of the Hoyas’ regular players – junior Jessie Govan – has a turnover rate below the BIG EAST median of 16.7 percent.

“It’s a team-wide problem,” Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing said. “We have to make better decisions handling the ball … I’m not even sure how to tighten that up.”

KenPom, a prominent college basketball analytics site, does not give Georgetown over a 50 percent chance to win any of its remaining games.

 

DEPAUL BLUE DEMONS (9-11, 2-6 BIG EAST) 

After a year filled with struggles, junior guard Eli Cain turned in one of the best offensive performances of his career, scoring 27 points in a 74-73 DePaul victory over Georgetown.

“At his core, he’s a hard-working, really good-hearted guy,” DePaul head coach Dave Leitao said. “His ability to make this transition to playing on the ball has not been easy, for himself or for us, but he’s done it admirably.”

Freshman forward Paul Reed also had a good game against the Hoyas, scoring 11 points and grabbing nine rebounds, both career-highs.

KenPom projects DePaul to lose its next four games and nine of its last 10 games.

 

ST. JOHN’S RED STORM (10-11, 0-9 BIG EAST)

There’s not too much to cheer about in Queens. The Red Storm are still winless in conference, falling to Creighton 68-63 earlier this week. St. John’s will take a trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to play Butler Saturday.

“It’s kind of a mix of (frustration and optimism),” head coach Chris Mullin said. “We are going to have to digest it, learn from it and then you have to come out with a positive attitude.”

Sophomore point guard Shamorie Ponds has been a lone bright spot. He has averaged 19.3 points per game in BIG EAST play.

 

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